Monday, October 23, 2006

Strange Bedfellows

Christianity and tarot make very odd bedfellows indeed. One might even say they need separate bedrooms at the very least. That opinion is held not only by many Christians but also by many Pagans and neo-pagans who reject the Christian symbolism in the cards and claim the symbology to be corrupted forms of earlier pagan symbolism. While they have a valid point, I think it's interesting that both Christian and Pagan belief systems reject the Christian historical roots of tarot.

The Church took offense with the deck almost immediately. Card playing had associations with gambling ever since playing cards had been introduced to Europe and various laws and decrees were enacted to discourage that. However, the earliest known disparagement of tarot cards specifically comes from an anonymously penned sermon, known as "The Steele Sermon" or "Sermones de Ludo cum Aliis," c. 1480. This sermon detailed the Trumps of tarot and asserts that the Trumps were invented and named by the Devil and as such hotly discourages their use. The blasphemous depiction of The Pope, the inclusion of a female Popesse, the imagery of The Devil, The Tower and so forth created objections and banning by the Church. But it likely wasn't just the pictures that caused such a ruckus. The politics of the time were more than probably the driving force behind the opposition.

The characters in the tarot "triumph" or trumps were seen in the many Roman Catholic pageantry processions, not too unlike what we see preceeding Lent at Mardis Gras and Carnival. These pageants were evangelistic devices of the Church designed to convert. Indeed, the Church has used various forms of earlier pagan imagery in its quest to convert the heathen, so the imagery these pageants used were designed to place the Christian story in a pagan context. As the Reformation took hold in Europe, these pageants disappeared from France, Italy, and England. All religious plays were banned in France in the mid 1500's and with them went much of the historical truth about what those original tarot trumps actually represented. A very sad loss, indeed.

While we may have lost much of the original intention and meanings of the trump cards, we have not lost the association with the demonic first set forth by that frothing friar. The Reformation did nothing to change that, in fact under John Calvin the Church government at Geneva instituted what amounted to a theocracy that strictly governed personal and household conduct, severely punishing those that deviated. Card playing under Calvin's regime was not allowed. (However, this was not the case in Germany where Luther's Reformation did not specifically prohibit card playing, so the making and playing of cards continued, as it does today.) My point here is there has always been a gap between what the Church proscribes and what its followers actually do. While the Catholic church, both pre-Reformation and post, linked tarot with the devil, your average tarocchi playing parishoner most likely dismissed that notion out of hand.

Today, modern Christian fundamentalist sects likewise attempt to place the fear of God in its followers regarding the use of tarot, but their reasons are somewhat different. As tarot developed through the centuries it became embraced by Christian mystical secret societies such as the Order of the Golden Dawn and its splinter groups. These societies attached occult and esoteric meanings and uses for the cards apart from their game-playing use. All three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam forbid the practice of divination. Well, sort of. Officially they do, anyway. All three have their esoteric branches: The Jewish Kaballah, Christian Hermeticism and Gnostic Mysticism, and Islamic Sufism, for example. These are the woo-woo branches of these religions and often utilize divination practices in a quest for spiritual enlightenment. However, the more mainline of these religions don't trust that stuff and pretty much dismiss most of it. Conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups commonly reject tarot as belonging to the kind of divination that is forbidden in the Bible and view it as a doorway through which demonic forces can enter your life and send you reeling down into the depths of depravity. It's hard to take that kind of attitude seriously from the same types of folks who also claim the devil inhabits children's toys, games, and dolls.

However, I'm not going to play tarot apologist here and attempt to make a case that tarot was originally Christian in origin and therefore ought to gain the stamp of approval from Christians. I could, but there just isn't enough known about the origins of tarot for me to do that. There certainly is very blatant Christian iconography in tarot images, but without those original pageantry plays and meanings, it's difficult to assume just what the cards were projecting. Moreover, I just don't want to. Certainly there was a time in my life when I Biblically prooftexted just about everything I said and did, but I'm not in that place any longer, thank God. Apparently certain people in Church leadership have always had an issue with the cards while others have not. That being the case, as it always has been, it lies with the individual to decide whether or not practicing tarot reading is in line with or counter to their faith. Many tarot readers are Christians, some even incline towards a conservative bent. One reader I am acquainted with is married to a pastor and is herself a member in the ultra conservative denomination The Church of Christ. I've seen enough divination practiced within Christian circles to know that it isn't divination per se that is objected to, but the manner in which it is done and with which tools.

Christianity and the tarot have a marriage that has been rocky and uncomfortable at best, but the images clearly cannot be divorced from their Christian context. It is true that the early Church did indeed co-opt many of the pagan traditions, symbolism, and festivals and layered upon them a Christian filter and interpretation in order to convert the masses. Therefore the symbolism within tarot does have origins that predate Christianity, but the Christian meaning is intended to be a part of that symbolic language as well. The creators of those images were likely well indoctrinated into the "new" meanings as well as the old, a blending which, to this day, is difficult to separate out. It's a fascinating study to research the way the same symbols have been used by various cultures and groups, and to watch them morph through the centuries taking on layer upon layer of meaning. Tarot crams so many of these symbols into 78 cards that they should keep one busy for a very long time. In any case, no matter how you may feel about the joining of Christianity with tarot, they are inextricably bound and it helps to understand more about the tense history this union has endured.


Mystic Flower by Gustave Moreau c.1875
Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage by Paul Huson

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've had an experience recently which led me to think that tarot readings are no longer so cool.
I have found that websites about innocent harmless card games were being misclassified as "occult" by some internet filters. These harmless websites may be censored because of it. I should also note that Google is placing ads for Kasamba.com on card game websites which are giving visitors the wrong impression about the actual content of the sites.

In case you don't know it by now, tarot cards were created for playing card games and the fortune telling stuff came later.
Tarot cards are still being used for game playing, although nowadays players are useing more modern looking decks which look very different from the fortune telling deck.
Google the terms "jeu de tarot" or "tarock" for details
The practice of tarot reading, while fun for many people, is really tarot taken out of context. It is a stereotype, not against a class of people, but a stereotype against an aspect of culture.
Although tarot, in its genuine form, is a type of trick taking card game similar to spades, sheepshead, and euchre, the metaphysical folks have misrepresented it to the world at large in connection with fortune telling.
Although well-meaning, the metaphysical crowd have been doing damage to a lesser known but important aspect of the world's gaming culture.

Ginny said...

Yes, you're right. Tarot is played as a game and there are leagues and clubs that thrive, particularly in France, that enjoy tarot as a card game only. That was its original purpose. However, playing cards and divination have pretty much always gone hand in hand. Ever since there have been cards people have been using them as fortune telling tools. In fact, there is a longer history of this with playing cards than with tarot cards which continues today. Pretty much anything can be used and is used for divination: sticks, bones, shells, animal entrails, coffee grounds, tea leaves, books, you name it, it is used for people to intuit patterns and messages from their subconscious. Undoubtedly, however, tarot has garnered a reputation unique from playing cards that has set them apart as primarily a divination tool. I see no reason to limit any aspect or use of these wonderful cards. Many find them interesting only for their historical side, while others simply see them as a deck of cards with which to play a game. I think it would be great if more people knew about the game itself. It would serve to demystify the cards and help people understand they are not inherently occult in themselves.

Anonymous said...

Good response, Ginny! Athough I'm primarily a game player, I don't see the card reading as any more dangerous than the "Magic 8-Ball" It's a curious double standard that holds card reading dangerous yet I don't recall any attacks against the 8 ball divination. I do think that the focus primarily on divination may have put tarot cards out of context for a great many years.

Ginny said...

Well, there are groups that see "danger" in many innocuous things. In particular, some groups of fundamentalist Christians (see link in article about the devil inhabiting toys). Usually that kind of attitude stems from ignorance, misunderstand, and fear. These folks would see the Magic 8-ball as dangerous as well. I once pointed out to a friend that if she was going to condemn tarot cards as "evil" then she should likewise rid her home of candles, as candles are actively used by magick practicioners in the working of spells. She said no, candles were meant to give light, not work magic. So I replied that tarot cards were meant to play a game, not fortune-telling. (Score!) As for tarot divination being tarot cards "out of context," well...hmmm...it happens. I mean, as I mentioned in my post, Christianity has liberally borrowed pagan symbolism since its inception such that certain symbols have become inextricably associated with Christianity instead of the earth-based religions it all but succeeded in wiping out. As new ways of using things come to be, new contexts are created. Tarot divination, as I said, has been going on at least as long as the cards have existed due to the human propensity to divine with whatever objects seem useful for that purpose, but it was codified during the late 19th/early 20th century occult/spiritualism movement and as such has been considered a legitimate context for tarot cards since then. So, I don't think tarot divination is tarot "out of context" but simply tarot in a different context than tarot as a card game. Just as people use dominoes to build elaborate set-ups of cause-effect, or cards to build "houses of cards" and participate in competitions. We come up with different and varied uses for things and build different contexts for them.

RChMI said...

The icongraphy within the Tarot IS Christian in its construct and symbolism. It is in fact based on the "fith" gospel of the Church... that being Dante's Divine Comedy. Most of what we think of as being "christian" in context and take for as catholic dogma is directly taken from the Comedy and not the Church or christain scriptures.

Look at almost any Tarot deck and you can see the three books of the Comedy within the cards in their proper order...
Devil/Inferno/Hell,
Tower/Purgatio/Purgatory,
Star/Paradiso/Paradise.

The Comedy was in fact written in four parts, so as to mirror the synoptic gospels. The first was eventually incorporated into the narrative of the story, but it can also be seen in the cards lineup...
Temperance/Vita Nouva/The New Life.

With an Exoteric deck (Grimaud-Marseille being the best example) one can lay out the Trumps in a manner that shows not only the entire Divine Comedy but also the lessons to be learned from the Comedy (keeping in mind that in the Exoteric deck, 8 is Justice and 11 is Force/Strength.)....

-18-19-20-21-0
-14-15-16-17
-10-11-12-13
- 6- 7- 8- 9
1-2- 3- 3- 5

Ginny said...

You're absolutely right, RChMI, the iconography in tarot IS Christian, no doubt about it. However, there is also no doubt that Christians/The Church "borrowed" from pagan/earth-based religious symbology. Sometimes it was simply cultural but other times it was done intentionally in order to convert pagans and lay Christian meaning on top of their familiar icons. Therefore, you can see symbols in tarot that predate Christianity even though the symbolism itself is meant to be seen through the Christian filter.

I wasn't aware the Major Arcana reflected Dante, but I am not surprised. I can also easily see how acting out Dante's Divine Comedy in pageant form would be easily used as a tool of evangelism for the Church.

Have you seen the tarot deck based on Dante's Divine Comedy? I am more familiar with Dante's Inferno than with Paradiso, so I find it difficult to associate precise meanings with that deck, but it's a study I intend to get to...someday. :)

So...who might Virgil be in tarot terms?

RChMI said...

Christian symbology borrowed from Pagan sources, as did Pagan sources borrow from Egyptian sources. The difference between Pagan and Christian intent was that the Pagan source fueled a localized audience structure and the Christian source fueled an emerging global audience structure. Only the Christian internal matrix could bring to bear the extent of what the Egyptian Mysteries needed to manifest. Sadly, the axiom of "power currupts and absolute power currupts absolutely" rang too true for the Church.

If you look at the layout for the Marseille majors as to the Divine Comedy above in the comments, Virgil is the Psychopomp that guides Dante, and in that regard Virgil is the Juggler and Dante is the Fool, while the Popess is Dante's ideal love Beatrice.

Additionally, the figures in the second rank (6, 7, 8, 9) represent Dante's Cardinal Virtues as to the Divine Comedy...
Lovers - Convivio IV.24-25.
Chariot - Convivio IV.26.
Justice - Convivio IV.27.
Hermit - Convivio IV.28.

Also in the figures on the Wheel, one can see the aspects of Dante's Fourth Circle of Hell, wherein the denizens with great howls roll weighty rocks around in a circle... only they have become attached to the rock which is now the wheel and the denizens have become Howler Monkeys.

With most of the themes within the Comedy, Dante draws upon imagery from Plato... check out the chariot and his two horses for instance, stright from the Phrædrus.

rebecca-smiles said...

Wow, this is a really interestng conversation here. One thing that erks me somewhat is that some people have a PROBLEM with these overlaps and borrowings. If we could have, say, a Christian symolism only or a Pagan symbolism only tarot deck, would it really be better? I grew up pagan, but in a largely Christain culture, the Christan aspect of Tarot has enhanced my understanding of it. It could be said that as the culture around tarot itself was being Chirstianised, it was wholey appropriate for the Tarot to follow suit, since if it had not it would have spoken to an increasingly marginalised group. It does seem that the longevity of any practice, belief or culture seems to rely on its ability to reshape itself to the contemporary people.

Ginny said...

Well, that's probably impossible, anyway, to have a "Christian-only" or "Pagan-only" symbolized deck as RChMI noted, Pagan symbolism is borrowed from the Egyptians, Christian symbolism borrowed from Pagans, etc. Human culture is like that, it evolves and is influenced from its surroundings and history.

Tarot was developed in a wholly Christian culture, the Church was already fully established as a "world" religion in the 15th century. Oh sure, there were still other religions in other lands outside the empire, but they were seen as barbaric and heathen. Paganism as a religion had been almost eradicated or driven underground within the "civilized world." No one in their right mind would have admitted to being Pagan then although they may have lots of pagan practices and beliefs. If you asked anyone what faith they were then, you would have gotten a funny look. Christian, of course. There really wasn't any other choice. It was either that or be burned or otherwise killed as a heretic or heathen. In reality, people don't just relinquish their deeply held beliefs that easily, so the pagan beliefs became intrinsically woven into the Christian fabric, if not in official doctrine then in practice. So you're absolutely right. However, no one in Italy or France, where tarot originated, would have necessarily seen that then, they would have simply seen the cards as based on the common understanding of Christianity at the time, which was really quite different from the Christianity we understand today.

As earth-based religions have begun to be reclaimed in more recent years, tarot has reflected that and has evolved as well to include and differentiate between the symbolisms. However, what has emerged so far has still been a mixture, a laying on of "pagan" filters over the Christian base, which was itself layered over the pagan. As I see it, there really can be no proper separation of them at this time in our collective history. The archetypes tend to be just too ingrained in our collective unconscious. Oh sure, label the Pope the Hierophant, but he's still the Pope. Change him to the High Priest...but...screw it...he's still The Pope because his meaning is still there. Not to say these efforts in deck design aren't valuable, they are, but really...we're just one spiritual soup at this point.

Sally said...

Interesting Post- as a Christian I use and meditate upon Tarot cards, and can appreciate some of the tensions that exist between Christian and Pagan practitioners- and hope to be a bridge builder betweeen the two communities!

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